Sunday, January 27, 2013

(No.228) American novelists for whom crime pays


"Five contemporary American novelists for whom crime pays"

by Alastair Rickard


The late French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette argued that the crime novel is the great moral literature of our time. Perhaps but I do think that one of the great pleasures for a reader of novels like me is to discover a writer who has created a continuing character whose life and activities are interesting, a writer who regularly produces a new chapter in the character's life and one who writes well.

As followers of RickardsRead.com will know I enjoy reading (and reviewing) the work of such novelists from both sides of the Atlantic.

Five such series by American novelists are the subject of this column. All or most of their novels are still readily available.

Robert Crais had his first Elvis Cole novel, "The Monkey's Raincoat", published in 1987. In all there have been fourteen novels with this lead character. Cole is a smart-mouthed Los Angeles private detective who, with his lethal, monosyllabic partner the ex-cop Joe Pike, gets involved in a variety of well-plotted stories.

The novels are always entertaining reading but they are not written in a fashion that reminds me of, say, the American master of the crime fiction genre Elmore Leonard. "The Monkey's Raincoat is a good representative of this Crais series and, like most of these novels, is still widely available in paperback. The latest is "Taken" (2012), as entertaining as ever.

Lawrence Block has been writing novels for decades. His most successful continuing character is Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic AA meeting attender and ex- New York City cop who left the force after accidentally killing a child during a shoot out. Scudder is, by his own choice, an unlicensed private detective who does "favours" for which he accepts "gifts".

Scudder is a character who has aged and evolved through seventeen novels, not frozen in time like bees in amber as some continuing lead characters in series are. Start with the first Scudder novel "The Sins of the Fathers" (1976) while the latest is a flashback on his earlier life "A Drop of the Hard Stuff (2011).

Another among Block's several major continuing characters through ten novels is Bernie Rhodenbarr, a professional burglar. Like Scudder (and Block himself) he too lives and 'works' in New York City. The novels are not as dark as those featuring Scudder . Try the first Rhodenbarr novel "Burglars Can't be Choosers" (1977). The most recent in the series was "Burglars on The Prowl" (2004). I think the Scudder novels are superior to the Rhodenbarr series but the latter novels are enjoyable reading.

Michael Connelly, a former newspaper reporter,  twenty years ago created a memorable character in American crime fiction named Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, named by the character's mother after the 15th century Dutch painter. He is a Los Angeles Police Dept. homicide detective.

In his virtues and faults, demeanour and attitudes Bosch most reminds me (among the many continuing characters in crime/detective fiction) of Ian Rankin's wonderfully sour, non-team playing Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus. The Scot has recently been brought back from retirement by Rankin in his most recent novel "Standing In Another Man's Grave" (2012), another great Rebus novel.

Try the Bosch novel "The Narrows" (2004). It marks an important stage in Bosch's life, both professional and personal. The first novel in the Bosch series was "The Black Echo" (1992). The latest is "The Black Box" (2012) which is well up to Connelly's customary high standard.

The Bosch novels and plots move chronologically. Lately they have been intersecting with Connelly novels featuring a newer continuing character, an LA criminal lawyer named Mickey Haller. The first in that series, "The Lincoln Lawyer", was published in 2005.

James Lee Burke has been writing successful novels about as long as Lawrence Block. Some critics regard him as the best American 'mystery/crime' writer working today. In my view that 'title' still belongs to Elmore Leonard; in the U.K. there are several contenders for that honour. However Burke is indeed prolific and an accomplished writer. The continuing character for whom he is best known is a Louisiana Cajun police detective named Dave Robicheau who has a seriously dysfunctional former police partner named Clete Purcel.

The Robicheau novels began with "The Neon Rain" in 1987. Burke is still chronicling the life, the Louisiana times and the crimes with which an aging Dave Robicheau is involved. There have been 19 novels in this series so far, the latest published in 2012 "Creole Belle". It is very good. Burke does rank among the best crime fiction writers in the U.S. today.

Joseph Wambaugh is perhaps the most prominent and successful American ex-cop to become a crime novelist. He is sometimes referred to as the father of the modern police novel. He hit it big with "The Blue Knight "in 1971 written while he was an LA cop followed by the great success of "The New Centurions" in 1972.  In recent years he has written several police-centred novels featuring the beat cops working out of the Hollywood Station in Los Angeles.

Wambaugh, who has not himself been an LA  cop for many years, obviously spends much time talking to cops and listening to their stories both humorous and dark. He has been using them as both source material and inspiration for his Hollywood Station series. His most recent novel (his 16th), which has some overlap with the Hollywood Station series, is "Harbor Nocturne" (2012). It is enjoyable although not quite up to the standard of his previous works in the series.

Successful crime series novelists develop a continuing character(s) whose loyal followers can scarcely wait for the next novel in the series to appear. These five fine Americans are indisputably in this category.

Among this quintet of American novelists I do wonder, given their ages,  how long Burke, born in 1936, Block (b.1938) and Wambaugh (b.1937) will continue writing. Still, they have long back lists of novels for new readers to discover and enjoy.

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email:  Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

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